For if one thing dogged the Presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and made it even more “turbulent” than it might have been, that issue was, surely, the issue of quotes. And in particular the issue of whether or not routine and repeated threats to annihilate another UN member state comprised a threat or not. There were those – like Juan Cole in the US and much of the press corps in the UK – who insisted for almost eight years that the words “wipe off the map” or “wipe from the page of time” or just plain “wipe,” in fact meant something pleasant. Or that the words were merely a quote from Ayatollah Khomeini (true) and that quoting these words did not necessarily endorse them (false).
So it is almost touching that two days before even getting sworn in, the then Mr. Rouhani was quoted saying, at an ‘Al-Quds day’ event, “The occupation of Palestine and Jerusalem is a wound that has sat on the body of the Muslim world for years and needs to be removed.”
Of course apart from in Israel, most of the world tried to ignore this quote. And before the day was up, there were denials from Iran and the rest of the world that the words reported to have come out of Mr. Rouhani’s mouth were in fact the words that had come out of his mouth.
“Hear no evil, see no evil,” the old saying goes. And so the new presidency of Iran continues as the old one intended to go on. And the West continues the pretense that it wishes to go on pretending. For with Rouhani, as with Ahmadinejad, there will always be those – officials, semi-officials, non-officials – who will claim that the leader has been misrepresented or mistranslated, and then the rest will all go away. Won’t it? Or was the very presence of Rouhani at al-Quds day, like that of the North Korean officials at the swearing-in and the promise of greater cooperation between these rogue regimes against the US and its allies, all just misspeak too?
The root of the problem with our relations with Iran is not a problem of mishearing or mis-speaking. It is a problem of our not listening. Not listening to the words that have repeatedly come from their mouths. And not recognizing that the whirring noise in the background is not the noise of their subtle brains working overtime, but of their centrifuges performing that very task.